What Is a Digestif?

A Guide to Buying and Drinking Digestifs

Glass of fortified wine and bread
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A digestif is an alcoholic beverage served after a meal with the intention of aiding digestion. There are many styles of digestifs, from amaros and fortified wines to brandies, whiskeys, and herbal liqueurs. Cocktails that include these ingredients are also digestifs. While you might have enjoyed a sipper of scotch or a snifter of brandy, there are many other after-dinner drinks worth exploring.

What Is a Digestif?

The word digestif (plural, digestifs) is French for "digestive" and derived from the Latin digestivus. In Italian, it is digestivo (masculine) and digestiva (feminine); plurals are digestivi (m) and digestive (f).

A digestif is both what you drink and when you drink it. Traditionally, a digestif is considered any alcoholic beverage that you would enjoy after a large dinner, and a variety of beverages fall into this category. They are often characterized by a high alcohol content with a deep, sometimes rich, flavor profile. For liqueurs, digestifs often encompass stomach-settling herbs and spices and have a bitter-sweet taste.

Digestifs are not necessarily dessert drinks. You can enjoy them during, after, or instead of dessert, but a digestif tends to be far less sweet and higher in alcohol than the typical dessert cocktail. It's also rare to find a digestif with cream, chocolate, or any other decadent ingredients.

Digestif vs. Apéritif

A digestif is the opposite of an apéritif, a drink enjoyed before a meal. Apéritifs, such as Campari, gin, and dry vermouth, tend to be dry or bitter and designed to whet the palate and wake up the digestive system. In contrast, digestifs are less acidic, contain more sugar and alcohol, and offer a more relaxing, richer flavor profile.

Regional Digestifs

Americans are not as familiar with digestifs because there is less emphasis on elaborate dinners. In the U.S., dinner is generally served in the early evening with far less formality than in European cultures. There's no need for a nightcap at 6 p.m., after all. Americans also tend to group the meal into a single course and save the multi-course meals for holidays and special occasions.

In contrast, people in many European countries enjoy eating a grand meal later at night. It can be three or four courses and leave diners rather full. This is the perfect excuse for an after-dinner drink before dozing off to sleep. 

Each region and country has its own preferences as well:

  • In France, the digestif of choice is often a French brandy, such as cognac or Armagnac.
  • Italians tend to drink bitter amaros and sweet grappas or liqueurs like limoncello and nocino.
  • Spain has a preference for fortified wines like sherry, Madiera, and port, and pacharán, a sloe gin-like liqueur made from sloe berries.
  • In Germany, you'll find some of the most flavorful digestifs, including Underberg bitters and Jägermeister.

Types of Digestifs

Many spirits that are identified as digestifs began as medicinal tonics centuries ago. The herbs, spices, and other flavoring ingredients in these elixirs were designed to calm the stomach or have other medicinal benefits. Somewhere around the 18th century, these spirits were brought to the formal dining table.

Generally, you'll find good digestifs in one of four categories:

  • Fortified Wines: Among the most popular digestifs, you cannot go wrong with fortified wines like port wines and sherry. While dry vermouth is an apéritif, sweet vermouth is a nice digestif.
  • Bitter Liqueurs: In the same way that bitters are enjoyed as apéritifs, some are better-suited as digestifs. The ingredients that give them a bitter profile aid in digestion, though the digestif variety tends to be richer and slightly sweeter. Amaros, such as Averna and Amaro Meletti, are among the many Italian bitters to look for.
  • Herbal Liqueurs: Many of those medicinal elixirs of old are today's herbal liqueurs, and they're superb digestifs. These include aquavit, Becherovka, Bénédictine, Chartreuse, Cynar, Fernet-Branca, Galliano, sambuca, Strega, and Zwack.
  • Aged Liquor: Almost any aged liquor makes a great digestif, though brandies—including eau de vie, calvados, and grappa—are the most traditional. Whiskeys, particularly scotch, are quite popular, and añejo tequilas are excellent as well.
  • Sweet Liqueurs: Sweeter fruit liqueurs like maraschino and limoncello are nice after-dinner sippers. Even a high-proof, brandy-based orange liqueur like Grand Marnier can be enjoyed on its own.

Is Coffee a Digestif?

The after-dinner cup of coffee is a classic nonalcoholic digestif. Coffee's caffeine can aid digestion in a similar manner to alcoholic digestifs, though as a stimulant, it's best in moderation later in the evening. Consider keeping coffee drinks short and rich; a Cuban coffee or cafe con leche are excellent choices. Tea can work as well; split a tea latte with your dinner companions for a satisfying after-dinner drink.

Drinking Digestifs

With alcoholic digestifs, it's traditional to enjoy them neat and at room temperature. A pour of just one or two ounces is adequate. The preferred glassware is often a snifter or small cordial glass that showcases the drink's aromatics. For a chilled drink, a shot of liquor on the rocks in an old-fashioned glass is a good choice.

Digestifs can be thought of as classic after-dinner parlor drinks. If you're hosting a dinner party, consider offering a few digestif options and let your guests pour whatever they prefer. It's a great excuse to share any homemade liqueurs you've been working on, too.

Digestif Cocktails

You can also enjoy a cocktail that features any digestif. Spiked coffee drinks like an Italian coffee with Strega or a French connection with cognac and amaretto are great options. Or, you can sip coffee sambuca, in which the "coffee" is simply three symbolic beans.

The Manhattan is a classic digestif drink, and other whiskey cocktails like the old-fashioned, Vieux Carre, and Sazerac are fabulous choices as well. For something a little different, try The Marriage of Figaro with Cardamaro, the emperor with Unicum, or the twentieth century with Amaro Meletti.